January 2008
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A variety of bathroom pictures.

Bathroom makeovers: Relaxing retreats for less

The same remodeling trend that has turned kitchens into living rooms is transforming bathrooms into spas. Nearly 30 percent of the 121 million adults who recently completed a home-improvement project were involved in a bathroom remodel.

Yet bathroom makeovers are among the toughest to get right. Locating everything efficiently and making it stylish and safe is a lot to ask of the roughly 50 square feet that now define the average bathroom. For some, the solution is enlarging the space to make room for a whirlpool, separate shower, and two sinks. But even then, it’s easy to try to cram in too many amenities. If you’re like most remodelers, you’ll have to reconcile the luxury you want with what your budget allows.

Fortunately, manufacturers are making lavish bathrooms more attainable with lower-priced whirlpools, glass sinks, and other high-end fixtures. American Standard, Kohler, and other well-known brands are also pushing coordinated bathroom “suites” designed to make it easier to match the sink with the faucets and towel bars. As American Standard’s Web site boasts, “our new Town Square Suite makes designing the perfect bathroom virtually stress-free.”

How much luxury could we squeeze into a modest-sized bathroom without breaking the bank? We sought design and remodeling help from the major home centers, since that’s where most bathroom products are sold. We also compared four bathroom suites. But as we found, they all fell short in at least one critical area (see Matched suites).

We ended up with a workable plan, though our shopping trips revealed that some sources are far more helpful than others. Here are the details of our store encounters, based on the steps a successful bathroom remodel should follow:


Our goal: Update a 1960s-style, 9 1/2 x 5-foot bathroom for $15,000 or less. While that’s more than the $10,000 national average, it’s less than the $25,000 homeowners spent on high-end bathroom projects.

We wanted a whirlpool, separate shower, two sinks, stone countertops and floors, and translucent glass tiles. Since we couldn’t fit all that into our current layout, we considered annexing a small, unused bedroom nearby. Additionally, we wanted to enhance the view.


Selling faucets and fixtures is as far as some home centers go. While Lowe’s offers lots of both, you’re on your own with design. So we checked Home Depot, which offered some design help but wouldn’t refer us to a contractor.

How would we fare at a higher-end store? In 2005, we shopped Expo Design Center and Waterworks, which offered design help and a list of pros. We also visited a well-known independent plumbing center in our area. Higher-end stores tended to provide more and better advice. But even those presented a surprise or two.

Home Depot: A start. We brought a drawing with the dimensions for our bath and adjacent bedroom. The staffer suggested getting an architect if we were knocking down walls but offered useful tips such as adding a bath fan for ventilation and task lighting near the vanity. She also brought in someone from the plumbing department for tougher questions.

Then we took a walk around. Though Home Depot can special-order most items, our store had relatively little on display. Some fixtures were high on shelves, where they were hard to see, while others were spread far and wide, making them hard to coordinate. What’s more, stores in our area charge a $100 fee for the exact measurements that make them responsible if, say, a granite countertop doesn’t fit. While that fee is credited toward product purchases, we kept on walking.

An independent: Little hand-holding. A local showroom worked up a detailed product bid including a whirlpool, toilet, vanity, counter, tile, and faucets using the current walls and layout. The total for materials came to roughly $6,000. But sidestepping the big-box stores doesn’t guarantee personal service. For example, the staffer was initially reluctant to help us because we lacked a contractor and labor quote. The store provided the fewest design suggestions, and getting the names of pros took some prodding.

Waterworks: Good but still limited. Unlike some designers, the one at our local Waterworks asked the three critical questions: Who and how many use the bathroom, what we wanted in the new one, and why. Then she tailored the design and the products to our answers.

Instead of a hinged door, she suggested a pocket door that folds into the wall to free up space. But some of her other ideas weren’t as practical. One, expanding the window over the vanity, would stretch the view but eliminate the mirror needed for the sink. Products were limited to the Waterworks brand. While its glass tile cost the least, its fixtures and faucets cost the most at roughly $8,500, excluding a sink or vanity.

On the plus side, the designer offered a free visit and e-mailed price quotes and a list of pros. We left with a good rough plan and wall- and floor-tile samples.

Expo Design: Better but pricey. A better selection and displays are among the advantages at this higher-end Home Depot subsidiary. A trained interior designer suggested ways to incorporate a larger window without losing the mirror. She also suggested extending an awkward wall that contained plumbing to offer more privacy for the tub and shower while lining up with the nearby vanity to create the clean visual lines we wanted.

That and other sage advice were on the house. But a detailed, written plan and a visit would cost $750, which would be credited toward the total if we spent at least $5,000 on products. If we wanted to use Expo’s installation services, we had to spend at least $15,000 for the installation alone, our entire budget.


At $12,900, including $6,100 for products and $6,800 for labor, our final plan was a good compromise that included the whirlpool, stone counters, and translucent glass tile we wanted. Because annexing the bedroom wouldn’t have added enough space for a separate shower and a second sink, we saved by keeping our existing layout--a single glass sink and combined tub and shower. We also saved by earmarking different items from different stores. Here are some other ways you can put more luxury into your next bathroom remodel for less:

Don’t move the toilet. Our experts agreed that the added cost to move a waste line often negates the benefits.

Consider stock items. As with kitchen cabinets, stock and semicustom bathroom cabinets, vanities, and stone vanity tops offer lots of style and finish options in standard sizes, which lower the price. You can also save on plumbing items by choosing from a home center’s in-store stock. Though most stores have a suggested retail price, some stores and Web sites such as HomeClick offer discounts on these items.

Use tile judiciously. Tiling the walls above the tub and shower is a must. But we chose to paint the other walls to allow more money for the translucent glass tiles in our plan. Alternatively, consider tiling only halfway up the wall behind the toilet and vanity. Or use pricier glass tile only on the most visible wall in the tub and shower area and use glass-tile inserts on other walls. Also be sure to shop around; quotes ranged from $12 to $21 per square foot for similar glass tile.